BBC Sneaks Into North Korea

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 15 2013 10:28 AM

BBC Under Fire for Using Students to Sneak Into North Korea

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A North Korean soldier patrols along the bank of the Yalu River in Sinuiju, across from the Chinese city of Dandong, on April 14, 2013.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Vice magazine used Dennis Rodman to get a first-hand look inside the hermit kingdom earlier this year. One month later, the BBC used a group of British economic students to do the same, albeit with a good deal more deception. The New York Times explains:

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

As tensions escalated between North Korea and the world late last month, a small group of students from the prestigious London School of Economics crossed the border into the reclusive country for what was described by organizers as a government-sanctioned "week of sight seeing, meeting with ministers, government officials" and academics.
But among the students, the university announced in an outraged statement over the weekend, were three BBC journalists filming an undercover documentary. The BBC, the university said, "deliberately misled" the group to underplay the scope of the reporting, placed the students in danger and jeopardized its work in politically fraught nations. It demanded that the BBC pull the film, set for broadcast on Monday, and issue an apology.
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The British broadcaster, however, has said the show will air as planned despite the controversy. "This is an important piece of public interest journalism," Ceri Thomas, the BBC's programming chief, said during a radio interview over the weekend. Asked whether that justified placing the students at risk, he replied: "We think it does."

In a short online promo for the Panorama documentary, the BBC makes no mention of how reporter John Sweeney and his crew gained access to North Korea, only that he managed to spend "eight days undercover inside the most rigidly-controlled nation on Earth." While there, the teaser continues, Sweeney witnessed "a landscape bleak beyond words, a people brainwashed for three generations and a regime happy to give the impression of marching towards Armageddon."

The dispute between the school and the broadcaster appears to be over just how much the students knew about the BBC project before they entered the reclusive nation. In a statement released today, the news outlet said that the students had been informed that a journalist would be accompanying them and that they "were told in good time in order for them to be able to make an informed decision about whether they wanted to proceed." Still, the news outlet concedes, students were kept in the dark on the specific nature of the documentary, something it suggested was done for their safety.

School and student representatives offer a very different story. Alex Peters-Day, the student union's general secretary, told reporters that at least one of the students on the trip claims she was never informed of the plan ahead of time and that Sweeney posed as a professor while there. "For us, this is a matter of student welfare—students were lied to, they weren't able to give their consent," said Peters-Day, who also suggested the BBC had used the students as a "human shield" for its journalism. University officials, meanwhile, say that the ruse could jeopardize the school's international work in the future.

Making the whole situation that much cloudier is the fact that while the trip was organized by students, it wasn't technically a school-sanctioned trip. It was officially conducted by the school's Grimshaw Club, a student society of the international relations department, but both sides seem to agree that it was organized at least partially by Sweeney's wife. The BBC says even without her involvement the trip would have still happened. In a Twitter post over the weekend, however, LSE director Craig Calhoun said that the whole thing was organized by "non-students" and the network, who used the society to recruit students and "passed it off" as a school trip.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***

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